The Aesthetics of Ethnocentrism: The Moon and Other Legends

All this talk about the Super Moon reminds me of the day I lost my first milk tooth. It was the standard traumatic visit to the dentist. That evening, my mother took me outside and told me that the moon was made up of little children’s teeth, and it was now my turn to contribute to building that big bright ball in the sky. We unwrapped the tooth from some scrunched up tissue paper. She told me to close my eyes and we sung a random song which I suspect she made up as we went along. Finally, with my eyes still shut, I tossed the tooth above my head as hard as I could. The next morning, I went outside to make sure my tooth hadn’t fallen back to earth and, lo and behold, it was nowhere to be found. For some years to come, nobody could convince me that the moon was not actually made of, well, teeth.

credit: Kevin Fishel

credit: Kevin Fishel

From a parent’s perspective, the tooth-tossing ritual was significantly better value than the Tooth Fairy. It worked for me too, because I didn’t know any different. Perhaps thanks to my parents I didn’t pay much attention to Tooth Fairy or holiday-based legends like Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. Where I’m from, it never snows, and rabbits and eggs simply don’t go together, really. As for Sandman and Jack Frost, I never had the privilege of meeting them. Even to the five year old version of me, these stories seemed slightly far-fetched. Granted, true African stories were quite rare at home, and I owned instead the entire series of Ladybird fairy tales and fables, but I never came across Joyce’s Guardians of Childhood. I remember one Christmas; dad thought it would be funny to exchange gifts – not a common occurrence – and make-believe that Santa had paid us a visit. He left the presents on the balcony (for lack of a chimney), and we were pleasantly surprised, but far from convinced.

When my family moved to Europe, I continued to devour fantasy and adventure novels as well as a world of crazy animated characters on television who somehow helped me deal with the culture shock  of changing three different schools in five years. I still remember entire screenplays of films like Pocahontas and Aladdin and the Lion King and episodes of the Jetsons and Flintstones and Scooby Doo. I have to admit that at some point there was a blur across the line between reality and make-believe. There were some things which were clearly impossible, but other interactions seemed imitable and indeed I mimicked them in what I believe was a successful way to socialize and get by for a kid my age. For example, modeling Darrell Rivers of Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers by shouting back a fearlessly witty retort at anyone who tried to bully me in the playground earned me a lot of respect, for a chubby immigrant kid. Yes, they were all somewhat politically incorrect and Eurocentric, whether I would read them to my own children is up for debate, but I was young, I loved them, and I survived. 

rise-of-the-guardians-the-guardians-globe

I still love animations, so it’s hard to explain why I didn’t appreciate the magic of Dreamwork’s The Rise of the Guardians as much as I had hoped I would. The graphics were AMAZING. The moral was clear and heartfelt – about the power of light over darkness, or in this case happy thoughts over even the darkest fear. The main character (Jack Frost’s) development satisfactory, and made me want to watch the film to the very end. My inner child was awed. But the story has still been critiqued as shallow and incomplete for several reasons, ranging from lack of humour, a shallow and over-emotional ending, among other things. I didn’t have any of these complaints. My problem was somewhat more personal. Watching the film again I noticed 5 short lines which pricked my ears.

  1. NORTH (SANTA): My fellow Guardians – It is our job to watch over the children of the world, and keep them safe.

  2. NORTH: Will you, Jack Frost…vow to watch over the children of the world?

  3. TOOTH FAIRY: We’re talking seven continents! Millions of kids!

  4. NORTH: Give me break! You know how many toys I deliver in one night?

  5. E. Aster BUNNYMUND: And eggs I hide in one day?

Despite a deliberate attempt to rise above cultural stereotypes, like making E. Aster Bunnymund (who did not take likely to being called a kangaroo) Australian, and North a heavily tattooed Russian Santa, something didn’t add up. I don’t think it was particularly misleading for children or anything like that, but it struck me as an attempt at political correctness that failed.

korean fairyThe reference to the children of the whole world raised expectations in me that the movie didn’t meet. I saw some “Western” children, but no “Southern” children. And in substituting the all-European stereotype with Bunnymund, they could have gone further. I appreciate that it is a slippery slope: Had the villain, Pitch, who had the typical and unfairly but universally accepted British accent, sounded like 50Cent instead, this post would have been about something else altogether.  But Sandman would have made a great silent, albeit tall, Maasai and Tooth could easily have been of “Asian origin”, or something. For all its fantasy and surrealism, I would have loved to see a more international cast, especially now that times have changed since I was a kid.

When littlest brother was born eleven years after me, Tooth Fairy would make appearances in our household. After his initial dentist’s visit and the subsequent reward under his pillow, the boy had no problem pulling out his own teeth, to the extent that he was disappointed when they ran out. And I don’t know if he truly believed in Santa, but he was good at acting like he did and writing sugar-coated lists of all the things he wanted for Christmas; things that “Santa” rarely failed to deliver. Clearly, the world is a smaller place. Or the parents just had more money to spare. Either way, I did not appreciate the half-hearted effort at universal inclusion in the film, it left a lot wanting for me.

***

Now this is more like it  🙂

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